Nuclear Power Plants Threaten Drinking Water for 935,100 Minnesotans

Red Wing, MN – The drinking water for 935,100 people in Minnesota could be at risk of radioactive contamination from a leak or accident at a local nuclear power plant, says a new study released today by Environment Minnesota Research & Policy Center and the Minnesota Public Interest Research Group (MPIRG). 

“The danger of nuclear power is too close to home.  Here in Minnesota, the drinking water for 935,100 people is too close to an active nuclear power plant,” said Elissa Walter, a Carleton College student and spokesperson for Environment Minnesota.  “An accident like the one in Fukushima, Japan or a leak could spew cancer-causing radioactive waste into our drinking water.”

The nuclear meltdown in Fukushima, Japan last year drew a spotlight on the many risks associated with nuclear power. After the disaster, airborne radiation left areas around the plant uninhabitable and even contaminated drinking water sources near Tokyo, 130 miles from the plant.

According to the new report, “Too Close to Home: Nuclear Power and the Threat to Drinking Water,” the drinking water for 935,100 people in Minnesota is within 50 miles of an active nuclear power plant – the distance the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) uses to measure risk to food and water supplies. 

Radiation from a disaster like the one in Fukushima can contaminate drinking water and food supplies, as well as harm our health.  But disaster or no disaster, a leak at a nuclear power plant can also threaten the drinking water for millions of people.  As our nuclear facilities get older, leaks are more common. 

“Despite best efforts, the risks of running old plants, hotter, longer and harder is only increasing,” said Kristen Eide-Tollefson, a member of the Prairie Island Nuclear Generating Plant Study Group. 

 In fact, 75 percent of U.S. nuclear plants have leaked tritium, a radioactive form of hydrogen that can cause cancer and genetic defects. 

“Routine tritium releases from operating nuclear power plants is one of the largest sources of radiation emissions from existing reactors, yet it is not subject to stringent monitoring and review requirements by the NRC,” said Christina Mills, a scientist with the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research. “Because tritium can create radioactive water, it can enter the local groundwater and drinking water supplies, exposing local communities to increased risks of cancer and other health impacts. This report helps bring to light the threats to millions of Americans from these routine and other non-routine releases of radioactivity at nuclear reactors across the U.S.” 

Local bodies of water also play a critical role in cooling nuclear reactors and are at risk of contamination.  In the case of the Fukushima meltdown, large quantities of seawater were pumped into the plant to cool it, and contaminated seawater then leaked and was dumped back into the ocean, carrying radioactivity from the plant with it.  The Mississippi River provides cooling water for the Prairie Island and Monticello Nuclear Plants in Minnesota and could be at risk. 

“The report yesterday of two releases of tritium from the Prairie Island nuclear power plant, one on Feb. 3rd of 27 gallons and another of up to 3,900 gallons at the end of November, serves to highlight the immediacy of this threat,” said Natalie Cook, Board Chair of MPIRG. “With nuclear power, there’s too much at risk and the dangers are too close to home.  Minnesotans shouldn’t have to worry about getting cancer from drinking a glass of water.”

“In order to have confidence in our safety and be able to protect ourselves -- our air and water -- we need your help to ensure our "right to know" the risks and responsibilities of radiological protection,” added Eide-Tollefson.

The report recommends that the United States moves to a future without nuclear power by retiring existing plants, abandoning plans for new plants, and expanding energy efficiency and the production of clean, renewable energy such as wind and solar power.

In order to reduce the risks nuclear power poses to water supplies immediately, the report recommends completing a thorough safety review of U.S. nuclear power plants, requiring plant operators to implement recommended changes immediately and requiring nuclear plant operators to implement regular groundwater tests in order to catch tritium leaks, among other actions. 

"Our drinking water is too important to risk radiation contamination," said Walter. "We should keep the moratorium in place that prohibits new nuclear plants in Minnesota." 

“There are far cleaner, cheaper, and less-risky ways to get our energy,” concluded Natalie Cook.  “Minnesota should move away from nuclear power immediately and choose alternatives like wind and solar power. We’re working to make sure Minnesota gets 10% of its energy from solar power by 2030. Besides being safer and clean, solar is also great for boosting our own local economies.”